The power of an individual’s voice to influence politicians and legislation was expressed in myriad ways on March 12, the annual Advocacy Day of Reform Jewish Voice of New Jersey (RJVNJ). Cochair Liz Cohen recalled being motivated to create this lobbying opportunity in part by State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37), who told her at a regional Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) workshop on hunger some years ago, “I need to see you in Trenton; you need to come and make us do something about this.”
The goal of this year’s RJVNJ Trenton pilgrimage — “R’fuah Sh’lehmah: Making New Jersey Whole” — was to educate the approximately 50 Reform and 10 Conservative Jews in attendance about four legislative initiatives: drivers’ licenses for undocumented residents, the right to earn sick leave, voting rights for incarcerated felons, and gun safety.
These were selected, Cohen explained to NJJN, because they are “front and center in the national Reform movement,” and topics that are relevant to “what is going on around the world.”
“We want together to have a voice, to make changes in our state, to make it more whole,” said cochair Ethan Prosnit, assistant rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield.
The annual Advocacy Day, according to Rabbi Philip Bazeley of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, is not related to partisan politics, but rather to “our larger sense of what we are as citizens of this country, and as Jews.” RJVNJ, which is under the umbrella of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, annually brings together congregants from New Jersey’s 45 Reform congregations to advocate for political change.
“There have been many times in our people’s history when we were powerless to stop the forces of hate in our communities,” Bazeley told NJJN. “We’re not in that time now, and we have the ability to make a tremendous impact.”
This was the first Advocacy Day for Marissa Klass, a member of Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro and a senior at Marlboro High School. She said she particularly appreciated hearing adults speak passionately about social justice.
“Being a teen who surrounds herself with teen activists, it’s very positive to see that it is not something that dies,” she said. Klass was unable to speak with her assemblymen and senator, but plans to set up appointments to do that. “I want to have the experience of talking to my legislator and hearing a different perspective; I value the counterargument,” said Klass, who described herself as “pretty liberal” in a county with conservative voters.
Rickie Kashdan of Temple Beth Miriam in Long Branch appreciated the valuable information by speakers from citizen action groups. “They have done the research to present really solid information that allows me to go into the world as a more informed person to talk to my representatives, temple members, and friends and family,” she said.
Eight members of The Jewish Center in Princeton, a Conservative congregation, participated. “We need to make our voices heard,” said Louise Sandberg. “I’d like to see the Conservative movement having its own advocacy day or taking a more active part in our local politics.”
Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Dist. 20) was first to address the group. She spoke in favor of granting drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants and emphasized the importance of advocacy. “It’s really important that we hear your perspective and voice,” she said. “I find the best legislation comes from the community when people tell you what’s going on and what doesn’t work.”
The importance of citizen action was backed by a “miracle story” told by Rev. Robert Moore, executive director of the Coalition for Peace Action and an advocate for gun safety. In 1991 New Jersey passed the country’s strongest assault weapons ban. Two years later, according to Moore, the National Rifle Association (NRA) helped elect a “veto-proof majority” in the NJ Assembly, which then rescinded the ban.
But the unexpected happened three weeks later in the State Senate. “Not a single New Jersey state senator voted to rescind that ban,” Moore said. When The Trenton Times asked a local state senator, a member of the NRA, why he voted against rescinding, the man said, “I got 2,000 phone calls, and 90 percent were for keeping it.”
Margo Wolfson, a member of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen and a biology teacher at Brookdale Community College.
Inspired by Moore’s story, Margo Wolfson, a member of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, said, “Sometimes it feels like the forces against these great causes are too overwhelming…Just listening to his story keeps you trying to do what is right.”
Regarding sick leave, Louis DiPaolo, legislative director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance, used his family as an example of why he is passionate about earned sick leave. DiPaolo said that though he initially had a “very privileged upbringing,” it ended rather suddenly when technology wiped out the photo printing and development company where his parents worked. His father became a school custodian, and his mother has become one of an estimated 1.2 million New Jerseyans who can’t take time off for pay if they or their loved ones are sick.
Topics of social reform were tied to Jewish texts. Marc Kline, rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, shared sources that, in his view, support giving New Jersey citizens who are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole the right to vote. He cited passages from the Book of Isaiah about unfair laws that deprive the poor of justice and deny the rights of the needy. He also referred to portions of Leviticus in which lepers and others who are “put out of society for a period of time” are reintroduced into the community.
“The world wasn’t created whole, and we have to do God’s work to do that,” Kline said.
Also in support of prisoners’ rights, Dianna Houenou, policy counsel of ACLU-NJ, said people of color are imprisoned at much higher rates than whites — approximately five times more, according to the NAACP — even when allegedly committing similar crimes. “We as a nation and a state have been using our criminal justice system to prop up racial injustice for centuries,” Houenou said. Adding insult to injury, she said, a higher proportion of African Americans can’t vote.
“Whole swathes of the community are left without a voice, on voting for our representatives and about the issues most important to us,” she said.
Residents of Dist. 16 spoke to Democratic Assemblymen Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman, a member of Temple Beth El in Hillsborough and RJVNJ.
One lobbying tip offered by Zwicker: Not only should people reach out to their representatives by sending emails and letters, but also to “the people who control the legislative agenda” — the speaker of the General Assembly, the president of the State Senate, and the governor.
The legislators acknowledged they were not well versed in every issue that came up, and said they appreciated hearing the insights and personal stories of their constituents.
Freiman said when his son once urged him to take an immediate stand on an issue, the assemblyman responded, “Let me study this, let me hear from both sides, let me digest it. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”